Why One Wave Is All It Takes to Find Your Bliss

Just one? Photo: Tim Marshall//Unsplash

The Inertia

A friend of mine, a much more adept and experienced surfer, has always uttered variations of the phrase “one wave is all it takes.”

Years ago, I paddled out during a hurricane swell that was literally and figuratively over my head. When we texted later, I told him I was bummed because I only caught one real wave, a screamer, and I literally just held on for dear life the entire time. His response? That’s all you need. One wave. That’s all it takes.

I never appreciated what I saw as his limiting overreaction to grabbing only one ride, even back when I missed more waves than I rode. Who wants just one good wave? That doesn’t make a session, it just spells more frustration, right?

Over the years, as I stepped up my surf game, I buried this adage somewhere between my quiver of boards and my studying of the surf reports. Even on a “bad” day in Southern California, when the hardy locals play pickleball because it’s not six-foot and clean, I can pick up a series of waves. Rain or shine, onshores or offshores, the Pacific reliably serves up ride after ride, especially for those accustomed to flat spells.

Now I’m back in New England, lifting rusty weights in my muggy garage, tentatively jogging as I recover from a back injury, and fixing dings as I stare out at the salty, seaweed-dotted lake some call the Atlantic. Sure, this hurricane season (we’re already on day 24, not that I’m counting) is supposed to get wild and the fall usually brings fun-to-epic surf, but if I’m living in the present then I’m living next to an ocean flatter than Kyrie Irving’s view of the world.

Yesterday, however, reports suddenly erupted with a 2-3+ (love that plus) wind swell lighting up our local breaks. I rushed through a few deadlines, missed the early window, but set myself up for a sunset session. However, the sense of utter malaise that had permeated my day was only intensifying, and to say I was “in a funk” was an understatement. Overall, I’m an extremely fortunate and privileged individual; but we all have our days. For me, it was a combination of some career misfortunes and mistakes coming to light, a little bad luck, a lot of missed sleep and some financial concerns with a light dusting of anxiety on top. Ah, Mondays. 

I almost bailed, telling myself I needed to catch up on work and then do 100 other fun things like power washing the side of the house, fixing the deck, applying to new jobs, pitching new articles…yet, as the list ballooned in my head, a subtle whisper chimed in the back of my mnd that sounded, strangely, just like wise old surf sage Mark Occhilupo. In his charming Australian accent, Occy told me that riding waves would get me out of my head for a few hours and send a lightning bolt of stoke down my sweaty spine.

When I conquered tourist traffic and reached the rocky break, the line of Tacomas and Rangers left no room for my old Honda sedan. In the distance, I could see green waves peeling in the fleeting sun, so I chanced it illegally, knowing that the way my day was going, I’d probably get towed (though, nothing can be worse than when I got towed on a winter day in Gloucester, Mass., and had to hitchhike, shivering, in my wetsuit). 

As I jogged down to the break, I realized I was right on time for the after-work crowd, many of whom knew each other, and we all paddled out at the same time. Awesome. The last time I’d surfed this spot, a dawn patrol last summer, there were three people out, and absurdly, that’s what I’d envisioned. To make matters worse, the tide was rising and most waves weren’t breaking. Many surfers were just sitting there, shooting the humid breeze, hoping a miracle wave would rise behind them. That wouldn’t happen, I wanted to tell them. 

I paddled hard for the main peak, hoping to push my anxiety and frustration away. The crowd was thick — think Swamis on a good day with less space, less waves, an enormous mix of ability levels and a lot of bad decisions. I went for a wave along with 20 others, missed it and berated myself for bringing my mid-length instead of my longboard. Stupid, I thought, watching the sun try to pierce the clouds, just like this entire day.  

To my right, groms caught piddling waves and threaded the rocks in the shallow water. To my left, a longboarder made the drop but it didn’t matter, he got burned by three people, his cries unnoticed. No one gives a shit out here, I thought. As a matter of fact, everything was a mess today: the sloppy, slow wind swell, the inexplicably frothing crowd, my life. Sure, it was Monday, but lately a lot of days had that sluggish Monday feel. I paddled angrily, then pulled out as a woman with an 18-foot board got in about two hours early and a guy hooted her on, tossing me a dirty look.

I realized I shouldn’t have paddled out. I wasn’t having fun because on some level, I knew I should be working on fixing my career, or at the very least, working on the house or writing something new. Maybe surfing wasn’t as fun anymore, I’d been spoiled by dolphin-studded waves out West, or I was just at another crossroads where I’d once again pick the wrong road.

Then, the dark shadow of a wave appeared in between the two peaks. As it welled up along the rocky shore, I stopped thinking and moved easily, out of instinct. I paddled towards it, felt it lift me, then, as I’ve done so many times, spun around, angled right, and stood up. Was it the wave of the day? No idea. But it was definitely my wave of the day. I wove through three or four people and picked up speed, my mind lost in the clouds and the acceleration, my life a blur, my worries fading in the watery rearview mirror.

The best part is that I didn’t even make it. In my exuberance, I dug a rail before the last section and rag dolled. Paddling back through the crowd, the guy who’d hooted came over to ask about my board, shaped in San Diego. Turns out he was a nice dude, and I was pretty sure that dirty look was all in my head. The crowd wasn’t so bad, either: people were just amped that there was something to ride. More importantly, my heart thrummed in my chest, I was smiling, and my mind was deliciously blank.

The crowd got bigger, the waves dropped off, and I took off soon after, carefully balancing on the slippery rocks as I made my way to the car in the twilight. On the way home, one arm slung the window, the crickets hummed. The gulls soared above the town beach, fading into darkness. Tomorrow was a blank slate. Everything was going to be alright. As my friend often said, one wave is all it takes. I’d just forgotten.


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